Is zero-fares public transport the answer? A debate

ZeroFare-Rt.-1

Source: Mountain Line.

This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine on Urban Revolution and the Right to the City. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

YES (zero-fare public transport is the answer): Roger Fowler  is a community activist and organiser at the Mangere East Community Centre, South Auckland, and editor of farefreenz.blogspot.co.nz. He is also co-ordinator of the Respect Our Community group and of the Palestine solidarity group Kia Ora Gaza.

Seniors can show the way to get Auckland moving towards a modern, expanded public transport network for Auckland, that is fully integrated, publicly owned and free at the point of use. Why not extend the SuperGold Card to open up zero-fare public transit for all citizens?

A fresh approach – a total modal shift

The serious traffic congestion, chronic fossil-fuel wastage and pollution issues that plague Aucklandcan only get worse, as currently over 825 cars are added onto Auckland roads every week. it’s time to consider a truly sustainable public transport policy that offers a fresh approach to city-wide mobility for all. A total modal shift is required that upholds public transport as a vital public service, like education, libraries, health services, sanitation and water supplies.

To achieve this goal, we need big new incentives to change the entrenched mind-set of dependency on private cars and oil. Although recent improvements have increased patronage, we need a radical incentive to effectively get the bulk of commuters out of our cars and into public transport and end Auckland’s costly daily gridlock.

The SuperGold Card has had a dramatic effect in getting seniors out and about on free public transport. Instead of creating obstacles, Auckland Transport should expand the Super Gold Card success to open up free public transport to all citizens – not just restricted to senior citizens. The solution is free transit for all passengers at the point of use – with the immense benefits and costs shared by all.

Rather than building more and more extravagant motorways, tunnels and flyovers that merely encourage more traffic congestion, the Government should urgently divert funds from big roading projects into efficient user-friendly public transport and decent walking and cycling facilities.

Overseas cities adopting free public transit

Free public transport is not a new concept. Many cities overseas are adopting, or seriously considering, fare-free transit, coupled with a raft of new citizen-focused initiatives, as an innovative solution that can be appropriate for New Zealand cities, especially Auckland.

In January 2013, the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, (pop nearly 500,000) introduced free public transport for all residents, which has already brought about dramatically positive changes in city life, increasing mobility while seriously cutting congestion and pollution levels. The city’s mayor reports that the experiment has ‘surpassed all expectations’ with passenger numbers up by 10% and cars on the streets reduced by 15% in just 3 months. Other Estonian cities are likely to follow suit.

Free buses introduced last year in central Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichaun province in South West China, have resulted in similar stunning transformations. The formerly hopelessly-gridlocked Belgium city of Hasselt has flourished since 1997 when their visionary council stopped extravagant road building plans and embraced free buses and bicycles, and tree-lined boulevards. Not only did ridership soar by 1300%, but rates went down! However, a subsequent more conservative council later introduced some modest fares.

Citizens of many other smaller cities in France (such as Aubagne, and Chateauroux) and the USA (notably Chapel Hill and Clemson) have also benefitted from free public transport. Other large cities in Europe, such as Brussels, Leipzig in Germany, and Riga (capital of Latvia) are considering introducing free transit. The city of Zory in Poland introduced unconditional free public transport in May 2014, and hosted the 2014 International Conference on Free Public Transport. The municipality of Avesta in Sweden hosted last year’s FPT forum.

Kuala Lumpur and Penang cities have expansive popular free bus services. Bucharest, the capital city of Romania is currently planning to introduce free public transport. Many smaller cities in France provide free bus services. Many cities offer targeted free transit, such as for children under 14 in Barcelona, and on CBD routes in a large number of cities, such as Perth and Sydney. Big cities such as Paris and Los Angeles often enforce free public transport and ban cars on days when pollution reaches dangerously high levels.

Public transport – a vital public service

User-friendly free transit has also proved to foster social cohesion, inclusiveness and civic responsibility. Public transport should be publicly owned and operated as an important public service, just like libraries and rubbish collection – it would be ridiculous to expect householders to pay on the spot for each rubbish bag collected.

Zero fares are just part of a whole new modal mind-set that needs to be phased in.

But it’s not just a matter of making public transit fare-free. The cities that have successfully adopted free public transport insist that there needs to be a whole new emphasis and modal mind-set change: firstly, there needs to be a planned transition period to allow for building up the increased stock of modern zero-emission buses, trams, trains and ferries and expanded infrastructure. A promotional campaign could keep people fully informed about the changes and benefits, and change the prevailing car-dependent mindset into a realization that decent, well-patronised public transport is best for all. Removing all the obstacles (such as fares, proximity, accessibility, inefficiencies etc.) will help change engrained attitudes from “I’d be crazy to go by bus” into “I’d be crazy to go by car.”

A ‘step-by-step’ transition period

This transition period could coincide with a phased fare reduction to, say, a flat $1 per trip, and a moratorium on all big roading projects. Free transit could be introduced in stages, firstly for disabled passengers and school students to join the senior citizens, followed by tertiary students who show ID, then lastly all other adult riders. This gradual process would allow for the infrastructure to be developed throughout the city at a reasonable pace over, say, a three or four-year period.

Developing new improved infrastructure

The new people-focused mobility infrastructure should include:

  • Greatly expanded fleets of buses, ferries, trams and train carriages. It is estimated that this would need to be gradually increased up to about three or four times the current capacity to adequately cater for the increased demand. All new vehicles should be no (or low) emission, modern and comfortable.
  • Extended bus lanes and bus-only traffic signals on all bus routes,
  • Expanded networks of safe cycle ways, more open green spaces, walkways and car-free boulevards and malls,
  • Expanded park and ride facilities, and feeder services at all key nodal points.
  • Ample passenger shelters at each stop, that effectively protect people from the weather,
  • Limit inner city parking facilities.
  • New redesigned and direct bus and tram routes should be colour-coded, criss-crossing the city and easily linking up for maximum mobility.
  • All bus, tram, ferry, light rail and train services and timetables integrated to allow for easy transfer from one mode to another.
  • Strategically placed transport information centres offering simple colour-coded route maps, directions and advise.
  • All services should be frequent and reliable.
  • The introduction of free transit needs to be accompanied by a high-profile promotion of the benefits of the new public transport services.
  • Free wifi on all public transport and passenger facilities.
  • Clear signage to make public transit easily understood by all. More electronic passenger information signs at bus stops and train stations.
  • All services should use modern comfortable vehicles that can easily accommodate wheelchairs, shopping bags and cycles.
  • Wide doors, with lowered ramps, at front and rear for easy and rapid alighting and egress for all.
  • ‘Public transport ambassadors’ engaged to assist passengers and deter anti-social behaviour – similar to Māori Wardens. This will free up the drivers to focus on getting their passengers to their destinations safely.
  • All public transport services should operate 24/7. This will allow for the safe travel of increasing numbers of late night/early morning workers and nightclub patrons etc., and a practical alternative to drink-driving.
  • Mini-buses to link isolated suburban pockets to the main public transport network.
  • Like many European cities, free bicycles could be available for loan at strategic locations. Hasselt in Belgium even offers free bike maintenance depots.
  • Reintroduce trams along main arterial routes – modern trams are comfortable, and easily accessible.
  • Rail should be actively encouraged as the main means of transporting the bulk of freight, with expanded facilities. This will get a large number of heavy trucks off the roads and severely cut road maintenance costs. Heavy rail services to the airport and beyond should be urgently installed – with zero fares.

How will it be paid for?

Everybody will share the benefits of a big switch to decent public transport and an end to traffic congestion – so everyone should share the costs, instead of expecting the users of public transport to pay.

Most of the funding could come from diverting the huge government funds earmarked for planned big roading projects, into decent public transport. Also, direct income from: road and fuel taxes, inner city parking fees, and selling the extremely expensive fare collecting and ticketing systems. The vast tracts of land already purchased for more roads could be sold releasing extra funds for public transport. A new tourist ‘carbon-footprint’ tax could help offset carbon costs and be channelled into the new transit system.

Businesses will be the greatest benefactors as productivity soars and transport related costs dramatically drop. Huge fleets of company cars would become unnecessary, and the need for extensive car parking space would be heavily reduced. A differential rates system could be reintroduced, or a special levy on business could also be applied.

Advantages:

  • Dramatic reduction, or end, of traffic congestion.
  • Greatly reduced costs in road maintenance due to less wear and tear.
  • Substantial reduction in traffic related pollution levels, road accidents, deaths and injuries.
  • Increased fitness with encouragement and confidence due to safer walking and cycling opportunities.
  • A big reduction in the massive amount of time and productivity potential lost stuck in traffic each day.
  • Huge reduction in associated health costs: respiratory conditions, hospital admissions due to road accidents, stress related illnesses, etc.
  • Cut noise pollution.
  • Reduction in ‘road rage’ incidents; fuel usage, waste and costs; insurance claims and costs.
  • The finances and mobility of low-income people will be greatly improved, giving greater access to jobs, health facilities, etc. by removing cost constraints and coupled with better services.
  • Faster boarding times – no more waiting for each individual transaction.
  • Reduce the number of school children currently being dropped off at school by car with expanded free services.
  • Surplus taxi drivers can be offered jobs as bus drivers or rail or ferry staff.
  • End of assaults on bus drivers who will no longer carry cash boxes.
  • Emergency vehicles can get through without traffic congestion problems.
  • The increased number of buses and trains will be available to be quickly seconded to rapidly evacuate large numbers of the population in event of an earthquake or other civil emergency.
  • Abolish expensive ticketing and fare handling systems – fares only comprise a modest percentage of current income for public transport.
  • End all problems of ‘fare dodging’ and ‘over-riding’ and disputes over fares. No need for teams of ticket inspectors and punitive measures.
  • Public ownership and control will reinforce PT as a vital civic service focused solely on the mobility needs of the public.
  • Rates will fall as the city becomes far more user-friendly, mobile and genuinely ‘liveable’
  • The new innovative free transit system is likely to become a major tourist draw-card – think of Melbourne and its popular trams.
  • Auckland could become a world-leading ‘liveable city’ renowned for transforming chronic gridlock into sensible urban mobility.

Disadvantages … well, can YOU think of any?

NO: Patrick Reynolds is a contributor to transportblog.co.nz.

(The following is expanded from Twitter comments.)

The cost of public transport is a very important issue. But is free always the best answer? This is unclear. There are several problems with the zero-fares option for public transport:

  1. Possible overloading of services;
  2. Fairness: it is fair that the user contributes to the costs of service. How much of course matters hugely! Zero fares would mean the capture of public transport services by those more than able to pay (such as myself).
  3. Expansion: Zero fares would make more sense in a static city which already had great public transport and didn’t need to expand. But how would we fund expansion and improvements, such as the City Rail Link?
  4. The quality of service is likely to plunge without a source of funding. In Auckland, 50% of transit operating expenses are paid by fares, 25% by other road users (through the fuel tax) and 25% by property owners (through rates). Without income from transit users, how will we pay drivers, let alone fund service expansion? Would more taxes for this purpose be likely to be politically acceptable?
  5. If people don’t pay, they may be less likely to respect the service. So possibly, zero fares may lead to more vandalism, more abuse of drivers – the social contract between PT and riders might break down.

The zero-fares argument also assumes that the poor are time rich, which is not true. Those working two or more jobs might be more interested in a fast, high-quality public transport experience than a zero-fares option.

What all working people really need is great, safe, efficient, reliable service. On the model of the current SuperGold scheme it would better to target fare relief to the young, the old, and the poor, and to offer discounts for off-peak travel to shift the load from overburdened peak-hour services.

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Comments

  1. I’m happy to respond to Patrick’s tired arguments, however it’s a pity that he has obviously not read my article, which clearly highlights the vital need for top quality transit services:

    ‘..it’s not just a matter of making public transit fare free, the cities that have successfully adopted free public transport insist that there needs to be a whole new emphasis & modal mind-set change.’

    I then go on to list all the requirements for such a quality network, under the heading:

    A new people-focused mobility infrastructure should include:

    This comprehensive 21-bullet-point list includes this statement, which will greatly undercut his fear of ‘vandalism’:

    ‘Public transport ambassadors’ should be engaged to assist passengers and deter anti-social behaviour – similar to Maori Wardens. This will free up the drivers to focus on getting their passengers to their destinations safely.

    My proposal also answers his fear of ‘abuse of drivers’ – a very real fear at the moment – but this fear would largely disappear along with the robbery motive:

    “End of assaults on bus drivers who will no longer carry cash boxes.”

    Patrick asks ‘how would we fund expansion and improvements..?’

    Most of the funding could come from diverting the huge government funds earmarked for planned big roading projects, into decent public transport. Also direct income from: road & fuel taxes, inner city parking fees, and selling the extremely expensive fare collecting & ticketing systems. The vast tracks of land already purchased for more roads could be sold releasing extra funds for public transport. A new tourist ‘carbon-footprint’ tax could help of-set carbon costs and be channelled into the new transit system.

    Businesses will be the greatest benefactors as productivity soars and transport related costs dramatically drop. Huge company cars fleets would become unnecessary, and the need for extensive car parking space would be heavily reduced. So a differential rates system could be reintroduced, or a special levy on business could also be applied.

    Patrick asks about ‘fairness’ as ‘zero fares would mean the capture of public transport services by those more able to pay..’ – which just doesn’t make sense. It is surely fair that the cost of decent public transport is shared by all, as we will ALL benefit – and businesses will benefit most of all – with higher productively, reduced car fleets and parking etc – so business should pay an extra differential rate. It’s more than ‘fairness’ – it’s a matter of social justice.

    Patrick also worries about ‘possible overloading’ – but again my article stipulates the need for a ‘step-by-step transition’ and a phased increase in infrastructure and fleets to avoid these sorts of issues.

    His cynical assertion that ‘If people don’t pay, they may be less likely to respect the service’ is just not true – public libraries, parks, art galleries (all of which are free at the point of use, by the way) are generally well respected by all. I’ve travelled on Tallinn’s popular free buses and trams – there was no evidence of vandalism or disrespect anywhere.

    But it’s not simply a matter of making public transport free at the point of use – as the article says: a whole modal shift is needed if we seriously want to get the bulk of people out of cars and onto public transport. Making it fare free is just one important component.

    A decent, modern, no-emission, integrated, publicly owned expanded transit network with zero fares will make it soooo attractive and fair that most commuters will leave their cars in the garage – ending traffic chaos, create a healthy environment, slash precious fuel wastage and exhaust pollution, and take a big step towards effectively combatting climate change.

    Roger Fowler
    farefreenz@clear.net.nz

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